Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Sunday Read: Stephen Waldschmidt on She Has a Name

Even more convinced that SHE HAS A NAME
by Stephen Waldschmidt, Director, SHE HAS A NAME Canadian Tour
It feels like the chance of a lifetime, steering Andrew Kooman’s beautifully gripping play SHE HAS A NAME into a full, embodied life on the stage—and then to send the production to thirteen cities across Canada. It’s been a dream more than three years in the making, to incarnate this love story that is set in the dark world of human trafficking and child sex slavery. 
The central challenge with directing SHE HAS A NAME was keeping the heart-journey of Number 18 (the fifteen-year-old Cambodian trafficked sex worker) and Jason (the Canadian lawyer working undercover as a ‘john’ in Bangkok) both clear and in focus throughout the play. We had to avoid the risk of this show turning into a 90 minute piece of propaganda, which could be dismissed as ‘just’ an issue play. I want the audience’s souls to be captivated by the emotional story of Number 18 and Jason, to willingly be taken on their thrilling roller coaster journey. If the audience allows these two characters’ story into their hearts, I believe the audience will never be the same. It feels like a dark confession, but, yes, I want to change them.
art is also action, it does something in the world

Since I was a teenager, I’ve been ferociously interested in the intersection between the art of theatre and the need for concrete action in the world around us. Art is for art’s sake, a creation of beauty and form that springs from a personal response to life. But art is also action, it does something in the world. Artists do a whole range of things in their work. 
So then, what are we to do with theatre? Is it purely self-expression? On the other hand, is theatre merely an elaborate form of communication? In my graduate studies I sought to answer the question “How does theatre contribute to the common good?” I wanted to articulate, even if only for myself, why theatre matters, what it does in the world, why it is worth doing. I needed to answer the naysaying voices ‘out there,’ as well as the doubts in my own head. 
I believe theatre contributes to the common good because of what it is and what it does.

Allow me to digress with what might be an overly-academic discussion. I hope you will find something helpful and perhaps even inspiring here! I believe theatre contributes to the common good because of what it is and what it does. (By “common good” I mean the conditions that promote the human flourishing of persons and of the relationships between persons and between communities in our world, following a long tradition of thought represented by Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Ignatius of Loyola.) A work of theatre makes its own contribution on its own terms through the roles it plays and is intended to play in human action—and here’s three roles in particular I hope my theatre work will play. 
1) Theatre is an artistic and priestly act of oblation, a lifting up to God on behalf of and for one another the particular moments and details of human lives. It is a call to attention—and that attentiveness on the audience’s part some may call being entertained. But this is more than mere entertainment. The act of oblation invites others to see what is being lifted, to see reality. Theatre is an oblation of human being, through fictional lives whose stories are enacted onstage. Theatre offers a unique way to explore what it means to be human—with all the joy and pain that entails. This exploration involves examination, sometimes like an autopsy, but usually in the way a child would explore a garden or mountain valley, discovering through play. The play’s the thing—one of the things, anyway—that can bring people into a fuller awareness of themselves and those around them as human, clarifying our perceptions of ourselves and the other, our societies and our histories. As Peter Brook asserts “The great eternal question that we ask ourselves is: ‘How are we to live?’…. [Theatre is] the meeting place between the great questions of humanity—life, death—and the craftlike dimension, which is very practical, as in pottery. In the great traditional societies, the potter is someone who tries to live with great eternal questions at the same time he is making his pot. This double dimension is possible in the theatre; it is, in fact, what gives it all its value.” This oblation, this exploration of what it means to be human, is central to theatre’s unique artistic service. 
2) Theatre is a potential encounter with presence. Theatre exists for that encounter—offering the “real presence” of a host of artists through the life of the play itself. George Steiner insists that any poem, play, novel, painting, musical composition “worth meeting” says to us, “change your life”—that these examples of “intelligible form” interrogate us: “What do you feel, what do you think of the possibilities of life, of the alternative shapes of being which are implicit in your experience of me, in our encounter?” It is as if the work of art meets us as a subject rather than an object—especially theatre with its live people on stage, embodying a story in the present and in the presence of the audience. 

We tend to avoid others’ real presence, we tend to perceive our world based on what we already think about it, ignoring or distorting that which does not fit our particular worldview. Perhaps this is due to our deep need for security. Of course, this habit makes learning and personal change difficult. Steiner affirms, “It takes uncanny strength and abstention from re-cognition, for implicit re-ference, to read the world and not the text of the world as it has been previously encoded for us. The exceptional artist or thinker reads being anew.”One avenue we have to access that re-reading is art. Steiner believes that poetry, art and music “relate us most directly to that in being which is not ours.” The practice of welcoming works of art as strangers into our lives opens us to growth and metamorphosis, analogous to opening the door of our home to the human stranger. Cultivating of our receptivity to art may likewise develop our receptivity to the other and consideration for our shared common good; as Gabrielle Roy asks, “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?”
Similar to an encounter with presence, Stuart Scadron-Wattles writes of the encounter with metaphor which the “liminal space” of theatre affords. This “liminal space” is the world onstage that exists in the threshold between and meeting of the imagination of the audience and the imaginations of the actors. Scadron-Wattles insists that, in this liminal space, “we are better connected with our unconscious thoughts and with the substance of story than we could be in our daily lives. In this world, metaphor is allowed to flower. Sometimes the flower is even allowed to go to seed. And sometimes that seed falls into the softer ground of our unconscious lives.” A play’s central meaning or metaphor seeding our minds is akin to what Brook describes as his “acid test for the theatre”: 
When a performance is over, what remains? Fun can be forgotten, but powerful emotion also disappears and good arguments lose their thread. When emotion and argument are harnessed to a wish from the audience to see more clearly into itself—then something in the mind burns. The event scorches on to the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell—a picture. It is the play’s central image that remains, its silhouette, and if the elements are rightly blended this silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence of what it has to say…. I haven’t a hope of remembering the meanings precisely, but from the kernel I can reconstruct a set of meanings. Then a purpose will have been served. A few hours could amend my thinking for life. This is almost but not quite impossible to achieve.

3) Theatre is a public space for the incarnation of story—the word of the script is given flesh and dwells among us onstage. Story is the primary means by which we identify ourselves and understand our existence. Alasdair MacIntyre defines the human being as “a story-telling animal.” We craft or discover narrative in their own lives, tracing cause and effect in the events of life. We string together these causes and effects (choices, actions, events, consequences) to make stories, telling our own stories to share what we do and who we are, seeking to connect the bits of our lives by setting them within some greater whole. We constantly dramatize these experiences by reordering, elongating and compressing their elements in order to grasp their personal meaning to us, “as the protagonist of the individual drama we understand our life to be,” and to relate our stories to each other. Brook is right: “‘theatre’ is a fundamental human need, while ‘theatres’ and their forms and styles are only temporary and replaceable boxes.” This ‘theatre’ is part of how we live a common, or shared, human life.

Theatre IS good for us, on so many levels. And it is always connected to our action in the world, even when it seems to be art for its own sake. Here I must quote Robert Brunstein, who writes:
To my question, ‘Who needs theatre?’, then, I would reply, we all do—not for its superior aesthetic qualities, which it reveals so rarely, certainly not for its comfort or convenience, not even for its capacity to move forward in space and time in a culture of canned images, but because it represents social history in the making, both on the stage and in the audience. It signifies that community we have forsaken, the accidents and risks we would rather avoid, the sweat and gristle we prefer to disguise, the labor of humans working against odds…theatre represents an act of confidence—banal and dangerous and inconvenient like life, and like life, still capable of inspiring hope.
It wakes me up to engage the gritty reality of the world, to seek a life outside the matrix of North American consumerism.

 Now back to SHE HAS A NAME. Why this play? Because this story haunts me. It wakes me up to engage the gritty reality of the world, to seek a life outside the matrix of North American consumerism. It’s also a story that, if I’m honest, I don’t want to hear. The false me would prefer to just go on my way, preserving myself and my comfort. But the real me longs for my life to tell a better story. To be part of abolishing today’s slave trade, or at least to help bring freedom to one person. 
We are all just a degree away from being any of these characters. If I was born in a different country, to different parents, that could be me. One tragic event, or one momentous decision, and that could be me. We are connected by our fear of being used and by our humanity. It’s not those people, over there, but us, here. Do a little snooping and you’ll be stunned by the number of children aged 10-17 who are trapped in sex slavery right here in North America. The problem of this play is a reality all around us. And while I can avoid contact with the sex trade, every single product I purchase could be touched by the hands of a child or slave labourer. As Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the masses, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
I share Jason’s longing for things to be put to rights. A longing for our culture to choose generosity over greed. For my two little boys to grow up in a world where men are not conditioned to demand access to the bodies of women and children. For the name Number 18 receives to resound in the ears of every girl on earth. For our sight to clear and our empathy to explode. With Bruce Cockburn I sing, “Little round planet / In a big universe / Sometimes it looks blessed / Sometimes it looks cursed / Depends on what you look at obviously / But even more it depends on the way that you see.”
I will close with my invitation to SHE HAS A NAME audiences in my director’s notes. May I invite you to join me in letting this story to have its way with you? Wherever this play stirs you, to engage it? To ask “why?” And to allow yourself to mull it over and not rush to the next thing? And then…
For more on the SHE HAS A NAME Cross-Canada Tour see: 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.